Roast Chicken with Bread Stuffing
I’ve already covered cooking large cuts of meat, like roast beef and pork, in an earlier post on this blog. And now that the weather’s finally getting cooler, I’m getting back into the roasting mode. So tonight’s dinner (and the subject of this post) is roast chicken.
As a note before we begin: this method of roasting works for other birds as well — duck, turkey, goose, pheasant, etc. can all be done up in a very similar way — just remember to account for the different size (a big turkey takes a long time to cook!) and fat content (ducks, for example, are very fatty birds, and the skin must be pricked all over with a knife to allow that fat to drain out during cooking).
My mom taught me to make this stuffing years ago, when I was still in high school. She always uses celery and onion as the vegetables, and it’s a good combination. I like to mix it up a little, largely because I’m not a huge fan of celery for its own sake and I rarely buy the stuff. In tonight’s stuffing I used rapini (also known as Chinese broccoli or broccoletti) instead, and I’ve also had success in the past using carrots, corn, green beans, kale, bok choy, red peppers, and combinations of the above. Use whatever veggies appeal to you. You can also throw in a handful of cooked bacon or sausage, if you’d like to make things extra meaty.
To begin with, chop a small onion and a handful of veggies into approximately 1cm pieces. You’ll want between 1 and 2 cups of veggies in total, depending on the size of your bird (although you can make an extra large batch of stuffing and bake some of it in a separate pan, if you’ve got stuffing-lovers to please). Put the veggies into a large saucepan or a medium-sized pot along with 2 to 3 tablespoons of butter or olive oil, on medium heat. You want the veggies to soften, not brown too much. If you’re using denser vegetables like carrots, you might want to boil them for a few minutes before putting them into the stuffing, just to make sure they get nice and soft.
While the veggies are cooking, add your herbs and spices. Salt, pepper, sage, and oregano are pretty much essential, in my books, for getting that proper “stuffing flavour”. Most herbs will taste good in stuffing, and you can add whatever your favourite flavours are: rosemary, thyme, basil, parsley, cloves, and garlic are all good choices. Spice liberally; the bread and milk you’re going to add next will dilute the flavours significantly.
Once the veggies are nice and soft, remove them from the heat. Now it’s time for the bread. You’ll want at least as much bread as you have veggies, or as much as two times as much bread. Use whatever type you have on hand; the flavour won’t much affect the final outcome of the stuffing. Slightly stale bread or crust pieces are best, as they hold their shape a little bit better and make for a chunkier stuffing. Tear or cut the bread into small pieces (about 2cm across), and mix these in with the veggies. The bread will soak up the butter and spices pretty quickly. Add milk or cream to the mix until the bread just begins to fall apart. Finally, add one beaten egg to help glue everything together. And now your stuffing’s ready to go into the bird!
Preparing the Bird
The first step in preparing your bird is selecting a nice one from the store. Look for air-chilled, NOT water-chilled meat (in many parts of the world water-chilled meat doesn’t meet health code regulations, and there are good reasons for this — frankly, it’s just a bad practice). Free range is good if you can get it, since these birds will have less fat and higher-quality meat.
Many people advise rinsing your chicken before cooking, but I’ve never liked doing it. It significantly increases the risk of transferring salmonella or e-coli bacteria to your kitchen surfaces, increases the amount of time that you need to spend handling the raw chicken, and really shouldn’t be necessary unless you managed to drop your chicken in the dirt at some point. Any bacteria on the chicken will be killed by thorough cooking.
Get all of your ingredients and tools prepared before you pull out the chicken, so that you won’t have to open cupboards or the fridge with dirty raw-chicken hands. Get the roast pan out, turn the oven on, have a spoon ready to help with the stuffing, and have the twine out for binding up your stuffed bird.
Check inside the cavity of your bird to see if there are any organs in there. Sometimes the kidneys, liver, heart, and/or neck may be tucked inside the cavity. You can cook these up and serve them, if you like (I’m not a fan of organ meats, but some people do like them), or just set them aside to be used in making chicken stock later.
Once the cavity is empty, use a spoon or your hands to put as much stuffing inside your bird as possible. Squish it down to remove air bubbles. Once the bird is as full as you can possibly get it, tie the legs together to hold everything in.
***NOTE: if you want to make extra stuffing, I suggest cutting off the wings from your chicken and putting those into the baking pan with the extra stuffing. This allows some of that “chicken flavour” to get into the separate pan. You can also add a bit of chicken stock to the extra stuffing, to replicate the extra juices that would come from being cooked inside the bird.
Once your bird is stuffed and trussed, sprinkle the skin with a little bit of salt — this will help it to come out nice and crispy.
Cooking the Bird
It’s best to cook your bird at a medium temperature, to ensure that everything gets heated through without the outside getting blackened. I generally set the oven to about 350 degrees Fahrenheit — at this temperature, a 5lb chicken will take about an hour and forty-five minutes to two hours.
To ensure a nice, crispy skin and good colour, I like to cover the pan for the first hour and a half or so, until the internal temperature of the bird is about 150 degrees (30 degrees short of finished). At that point I’ll uncover the pan and turn the oven temperature up to 450 degrees. This last 20-25 minutes of cooking will crisp everything up nicely.
It is absolutely, positively, 100% necessary to use an accurate thermometer to check the doneness of poultry. The density and packing of your stuffing, the density of the meat, the amount of fat in the bird, and the nature of individual ovens can all cause differences in cooking time, and undercooked chicken can kill you (or at least make for a very unpleasant few days spent getting better acquainted with the toilet). If you don’t have one, invest in a digital meat thermometer. Don’t guess, because you don’t want to find this stuff out the hard way.
Carving, Serving, and Leftovers
Carving a chicken (or other bird) isn’t nearly as difficult as it looks. This is the method I use, although there are other ways out there. A thoroughly cooked bird should kind of fall apart on its own, and won’t need much help from your knife.
A roast chicken just isn’t complete without gravy. Combine some of the drippings from your chicken with a roux made from flour or cornstarch and water (or milk, or chicken stock, if you want some extra chickeny-flavour). I usually add a dash of Worchestershire sauce or soy sauce to deepen the colour of the gravy a bit, since I find the yellowish colour of chicken drippings to be slightly unappetizing.
Pack up leftovers right away and refrigerate them to prevent spoilage. I like to slice any leftover breast meat up for sandwiches, while dark meat gets chopped into small pieces to go into chicken salad or soup.
Once you’ve served up or packaged and refrigerated all of the meat from your chicken, you can make chicken stock from the bones. I generally just throw the carcass into my small crock pot with 5 to 6 cups of water, a clove or two of garlic, a couple of bay leaves, and a sprig of rosemary. Turn it on low and leave it overnight. In the morning you can pour it through a strainer, and you’ve got homemade chicken stock, all ready to turn into soup or other deliciousness.
And that’s all there is to it! Almost as easy as roast beef, and a nice inexpensive meal that will feed several hungry mouths.